Sorry to preface…but this is written as a radio/journalism piece…fictional, of course.

“Hold on, Maria!” Around and around she swings gripping her mother’s hands as tightly as she can. Finally, her mother is as tired as her young daughter and they both fall to the forest floor in a heap looking up at the canopy of trees above them. Maria feels the corners of her mouth beginning to curl into a smile as she lies safely next to her mother. She is happy.

This is the recurring dream of Maria Anna Zapata Cortes. It is a memory of long ago and now it only seems to haunt her. She would almost rather not have these dreams. Being so real and so full of emotion, Maria sees them as a form of trickery. She knows full well that today will be like all the others and the rooftop she calls home will be here to welcome her upon her return.

The rooftop is actually a good choice for her, she says. From here, Maria can see for miles. She can see the entire village of Justo and every one of its eight hundred twenty-one inhabitants. She says she would rather sleep alone on the rooftop where she can feel the morning on her face. Her only complaint is battling the mice for space, but she says life is less complicated up here. The rooftop is her home on most nights except when it rains she climbs downstairs to a small apartment with her aunts, Esmeralda and Elvira, where she sleeps on a soiled mattress with at least three other people. Her aunts are her caretakers not necessarily because they love her and want her, but because they receive money from Maria’s mother in America. They manage to pillage most of the money for themselves buying beer and fancy clothes for the men they entertain. Maria says they only see her as a resource and for now, she is stuck with them.

Maria’s mother left when Maria was only eight years old for America. Times were very hard and her mother couldn’t provide enough for the both of them. Maria’s mother met a man and he convinced her to go to America with him. She promised Maria they would have a better life and that she would be back within the year. Four years later, however, all Maria has is a handful of phone calls and dresses she has already outgrown. Her mother’s departure, although many years ago, has left Maria visibly alone. Her hair is matted and her clothes are worn, and while she has a natural beauty about her, her eyes seem to have a glossy stare. But Maria is clearly not void of emotion. It is clear she feels all that is around her. And unfortunately, her story is all too common here. It is a new generation of orphans , abandoned for a better life and left with empty promises too hard to keep.

On this typical day for Maria, the sun greets her halfway through her journey lighting her path to the crowded port of Miguel. Here, Maria’s booth is one among many lined up along the pier to catch tourists as they depart and reboard their lavish cruise ships. It is a gauntlet of sorts for buyers to find the best deals among similar things.

Maria loves to observe all the different types of people that walk up and down the pier. White ones and brown ones, tall and short, young and old – they all amaze her. Some are European, a few Asian, but most often they are from America. The America that stole her mother from her, the America that lured her father away before he even had a chance to see her.

She studies these people. Some nights she hides in an alley way outside a local bar and watches as they chase tequila shots. She knows there are others, of course. She had once met the “missionaries” in the mountains who provided medical services and once pulled the tooth of a cousin when she was young. To Maria, it seems everyone blames their problems on this place called America, but yet they all want to be there. How can one place be so cruel and so lovely? And why do they come here if everything is so good there? Someday, she says, she will visit this place to find her mother and taste this freedom everyone is talking about.

On this day, the port is bustling with activity. At the end of the pier, a family starts making their way toward Maria’s booth. By now she can decipher someone’s nationality in a glance. This family is clearly American. The forty-something mother wears pearls, a straw hat and a fanny pack. As she bargains with Maria, she makes no eye contact. The father figure appears to be detached from the toddler around his leg and always has a hands length distance from his cell phone sitting snugly on his belt. And finally, a young girl quite possibly the same age as Maria. Her braids are perfect and their bows match the hot pink windbreaker that swallows her. As the family walks away with their trinkets in hand, the young girl slowly makes her way back to the booth not to look at merchandise, but to look at Maria. Maria looks at the girl strangely and is surprised since no one ever seems to take notice of her. “Que?” Maria asks after a long while. The girl looks into Maria’s eyes and all the way down finally to her tattered shoes that are two sizes too large. Maria is used to the barrier that language creates, but this look speaks volumes. The expression in the girl’s eyes is curiosity blended with compassion. It is a look that says, “Why are you this way?” And Maria does not have an answer. All the years of neglect from those that are supposed to love her and the torment from her aunts have given her calluses to the outside world. But somehow looks like this can penetrate past that. She can’t move. She just wants to disappear.

Later when asked about the girl, Maria looks down solemnly and begins to speak. Her maturity is apparent. She speaks of a rage that she has felt since she first realized her mother was not coming back for her. A rage that traces back to her birth. Why is she Maria Anna Zapata Cortes? Why was she born in the small village of Justo? Why was this girl born in America?

When Maria feels like this, she goes to the only place she feels safe. It is a clearing in the woods where she and her mother once had their bamboo shack. All that remains now is a rusted sink and memories of Maria’s life when she wasn’t so alone. She feels at home here. It is a place where she can talk and be heard, rest and not be bothered, imagine and not be shaken by reality. Here in the quietness, Maria is resolved to her life and her situation. If their freedom is a cruise ship and souvenir trinkets, then this is hers. It is a place of peace in the center of creation to enjoy all of its splendor. And so contently Maria rises to her feet feeling the earth beneath her and listening to the sounds of nature, she begins to dance beautifully, like no one is watching…and no one is.

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